Soong family fortunes reveal hand of fate

By Rosanne Lin, Shanghai Star. 2002-08-08

Western philosophers are obsessed with the concept of "free will". After all, if people's actions were exclusively controlled by some unknown puppet master on high, how to meter out justice and blame? How to explain dropping megatons of bombs on some desolate part of the world to punish the evil and liberate the innocent - freeing them up to work as employees of large American oil companies and other multinational energy interests.

So to ensure justice for all, early Christian thinkers struggled to reconcile the reality of a harsh world with their belief in an omnipotent and loving God.

St. Augustine explained the contradiction by arguing that man had free will but God allowed choice - man proposes, God disposes.

The Chinese language also addresses this issue with a similar saying - mou shi zai ren, cheng shi zai tian - or the planning lies with man, the outcome with Heaven.

Charlie Soong, the father of the three Soong sisters - Ai-ling who loved money, Mei-ling who loved power and Ching-ling who loved China - provides an interesting study in this subject.

Charlie Soong's life is unusual. His success was necessary to propel his daughters to prominence in modern Chinese history, but at many points in his life, Charlie Soong was either blessed or incredibly lucky.

Charlie's real name was Han Chiao-shun, and his family operated a junk off Hainan Island, trading along the coast of China and throughout Asia-Pacific. His roots were humble indeed.

In 1878, Charlie, while aboard a trading junk, met a relative from Guangdong Province who convinced the boy to follow him to America. Eventually landing in Boston, Charlie went to work in his relative's store. There he met two wealthy students from Shanghai who would have a notable impact on the Soong family fortunes - introducing Charlie to his wife, the daughter of a prominent Shanghai family, helping Charlie build connections in Washington and raising funds for Sun Yat-sen's revolution.

However, their immediate impact on Charlie's life in the winter of 1878-79, was to encourage him to seek further education. When Charlie's relative refused to sponsor him, Charlie ran off and stowed away on the "Albert Gallatin" in the Boston harbour.

Reflecting on the times, Charlie as a young Chinese boy was remarkably lucky, the captain, Eric Gabrielson, was a devoted Christian and an unusually decent man. He made Charlie the ship boy and a paid crew member of the Revenue Service of the US Treasury Department. An odd first contact, considering the Soong family's later relationship with this branch of the American government and the Treasury Department's beloved 1940s rhyme - "Sing a Song of Six Soongs".

Gabrielson, concerned for the boy's education, introduced him to his Methodist friends in Wilmington, North Carolina, in particular a Reverend Thomas Page Ricaud who played an important role in helping Charlie reach his educational goals. Interestingly, Ching-ling took Ricaud's daughter's name as her English name - Rosamond.

This contact lead Charlie to the man who would have the greatest impact on his life - Julian S Carr. Carr not only funded Charlie's early education, but supported Charlie's business pursuits and Sun Yat-sen's revolution. Bringing Dr Sun, Charlie and Charlies's offspring - the three sisters - to heady heights of success and notoriety. Can anyone be this lucky?

Copyright by Shanghai Star.